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The Centennial State is so much more than mountains and trees—you’ll also find fossils, dunes, and canyons in its many protected spaces.
With 58 peaks taller than 14,000 feet—more than any other state or province in North America—Colorado lives up to its Rocky Mountain High moniker. But the national parks and monuments that dot the state showcase an astonishing diversity of terrain, from golden dunes to thundering river gorges, and protect human-made wonders that date back thousands of years.
Here, a guide to seven of Colorado’s top national parks and monuments and what makes each so distinct.
Moose graze in lush valleys, elk leap across tumbling streams, and trails snake up jagged peaks and drop into lake-studded glacial basins in Colorado’s best-known national park. No wonder RMNP (as locals call it) received a record 4.6 million visitors in 2018, making it the third most popular national park in the country, above even Yosemite and Yellowstone (and after Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Grand Canyon).
Most visitors start their explorations in the central area of Beaver Meadows and Moraine Park, while the west side of the park has quieter appeal. Stay in woodsy Grand Lake to spot elk in Coyote Valley or climb 12,100-foot Mount Ida. No trip is complete without a drive along Trail Ridge Road, which crosses the continental divide over a delicate tundra landscape.
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Etched against the white-capped Sangre de Cristo range, the Great Sand Dunes were left behind by a prehistoric lake more than a million years ago. High Dune and Star Dune are two favorites for climbing. Sand sledding and sand boarding draw increasing numbers of thrill-seekers: First-timers should start close to the Visitor Center parking lot, while aficionados can head for steeper slopes at the Point of No Return parking lot.
Starting with the spring snowmelt, seasonal Medano Creek emerges from the mountains and winds between the dunes, creating a sandy beach where families build sand castles and swimmers sunbathe until the late summer sun dries up the flow.
Slicing through marbled rock walls, the Gunnison River carved a canyon so deep that, at its narrowest point, sunlight reaches the bottom for only half an hour a day. Most people gaze into the depths from Dragon Point, Devil’s Lookout, and other viewpoints along South Rim Drive or walk the Chasm View nature trail on the north rim. There are no maintained trails into the canyon, although experienced hikers with wilderness permits venture down unmarked routes.
The Ancestral Puebloans of Mesa Verde, like those who inhabited Canyon de Chelly and other Arizona sites, carved their dwellings in the protective shadow of cliffs, constructing elaborate, multi-level communities high above the canyon floor.
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Today, Mesa Verde National Park—a UNESCO World Heritage site—protects more than 4,000 such ruins dating as far back as 650 C.E. While you can see the most spectacular dwellings from viewpoints on Mesa Loop Road, you can only enter Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House on ranger-led tours. Petroglyph Point Trail offers excellent views and a chance to see some of the park’s best rock art.
Most visitors are surprised to discover that Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, 12 miles from Mesa Verde, has more archaeological sites than any other park in the country—6,300 are scattered across its rugged 176,000 acres. Wander through the park’s star attraction, the 40-room Lowry Pueblo with its eerily well-preserved great kiva ceremonial room, then try your hand at weaving, corn grinding, and archaeological identification at the interactive Canyons of the Ancients Visitors Center and Museum.
If you’ve ever wanted to see—and touch—gigantic dinosaur bones jutting out of the rock where they were found, head to Dinosaur National Monument. But visitors also come to swim, boat, and explore Echo Park, the area where the Yampa and Green rivers meet and loop around Steamboat Rock in an almost perfect horseshoe bend.
In April, Dinosaur National Monument was designated an International Dark Sky Park, and astronomy fans are celebrating this summer with presentations, telescope viewings, and night hikes.
Established in 2015, Browns Canyon is best known for whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River, which tumbles over Class IV and V rapids with names like Pinball and Sidel’s Suckhole. The 22,000-acre park’s rugged terrain also offers prime wildlife viewing; hike the Turret Trail to spot black bear fishing the river, bighorn sheep jousting on rocky outcrops, and falcons and eagles gliding on the canyon’s updrafts.
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Colorado
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